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The Taming of the Shrew                  American Players Theatre, 2011

Tom Strini Third Coast Digest

A facebook friend recently vented some exasperation over the idea of the American Players Theatre staging Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. Her widely-held point, of course, is that the wifely obedience the formerly defiant Kate adopts is morally and politically indefensible in post-feminist 2011 America or — even in Renaissance Padua, for that matter.

I saw the show Saturday, and I’m prepared to say, along with director Tim Ocel and the cast: Not so fast with those feminist judgments.

In the last scenes, Ocel gathers the principals  in a sort of Agatha Christie drawing-room for Shakespeare’s grand summation.  Petruchio (James Ridge), after an extended battle, has married the notoriously ornery Kate (Tracy Michelle Arnold). Lucentio (Eric Parks) has married Kate’s younger sister, Bianca (Ashley LaThrop) for her beauty and her celebrated sweetness. Hortensio, having lost in his pursuit of Bianca, has married a widow (Greta Wohlrabe) for her money. The three married men bet on which of their wives will respond obediently to their summons.

Only Petruchio bets on his wife.

He wins. Katherine responds to his call, and with an amiable modesty that amazes everyone but her husband. She adds a long speech about the naturalness and value of wifely obedience, the speech that most modern women would find most galling — on paper, anyway.

Ocel did not remake the play along feminist lines; he did The Taming of the Shrew as we know it. But he, Arnold and Ridge found something generous and progressive in it, and those qualities rises to the top to redeem a speech that is self-negating. Arnold met Ridge eye to eye as she delivered it, and their confident gazes transformed Shakespeare’s words. Those gazes said: We’ve come to an understanding; regardless of what we say or show to the world, we are willing partners in this life. We are fully ourselves only for surrendering to each other.

Everything that happens in this funny, lively production supports that reading of the finale. Ridge’s Petruchio begins as a rough and ready fellow, a brash, hard-drinking adventurer. When we first see him, he’s done up like a Teddy Roosevelt Rough Rider. (B. Modern’s costumes are crucial to this production; more on that later.) He terrifies his crew and he’s absurdly quick to take offense. He is more or less the male equivalent of the spitfire Kate, who is in a constant fury.

When Ridge witnesses Arnold’s daunting fury he sees both his worst self and his salvation in it. He knows he needs to change, and in this wild woman sees his vehicle for change. The genius in Ridge’s performance lies in the way he shows his gradual change under her unwitting influence.

He changes her, too, but consciously, according to plan. He starves and humiliates her, but note that the cruelties he visits upon her, he visits also upon himself. (No spanking in this show; Kate is no spoiled child.) He starves himself along with Kate, until she utters “thank you” for the first time in her life. When she finally relents and speaks the words, Kate and Petruchio dine ravenously together while seated on the kitchen floor. The first glimmer of warmth glows in Kate at that moment, along with the first awareness that this fellow might be up to something not wholly malicious.

That glimmer grows, as Petruchio draws Kate into a series of nonsensical pranks. Arnold’s wonderfully expressive face is never more wonderful than when it tells us Kate grasps her screwball husband’s stratagems. Arnold delivers Shakespeare’s telling lines beautifully, but also mutely shows the wheels turning within with this strong-willed woman’s agile mind. She realizes that with a slight adjustment of attitude, she could become an insider in Petruchio’s endless private jokes.  They share disdain for genteel society, which is the butt of the jokes. That appeals to her.

All of this informs that final, telling scene. Petrucchio has given up his cowboy outfit for an impeccable Edwardian tuxedo and graceful manners. The other women show up in hooped, voluminous gowns that require corsets. Kate wears a glittering, draping dress that affords ease and freedom of movement. Arnold’s Kate is neither shrew nor mouse. She’s the future, a Modern Woman.

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